Indigenous organizations in Montreal call for a delay in reopening the city

A status report published by eight organizations in Montreal that serve the city's Indigenous community says it's too soon for reopening as the city prepares to reopen stores Monday and ease restrictions.

‘Universal decision-making disregarding the Indigenous community is harmful,’ says report

Resilience Montreal, a day centre for the homeless, set up tables in Cabot Square in late March in an effort to maintain social distancing while assisting the city's homeless population. (Simon Martel/CBC)

A status report published by eight organizations in Montreal that serve the city's Indigenous community says it's too soon for reopening as the city, which is the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis in Canada, prepares to reopen stores Monday and ease restrictions.

Indigenous advocates like Nakuset, director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal and co-manager of Resilience, a day centre serving a large Indigenous population near Cabot Square, say they're uncomfortable with reopening while the spread of the virus is only beginning to peak among Indigenous populations.

"I don't understand how they decided not to open the schools because the numbers are too high but they're going to open up society?" said Nakuset. 

Native Women's Shelter and Resilience co-drafted the report, along with Open Door Montréal, Southern Quebec Inuit Association, Indigenous Street Worker Project, First Peoples Justice Centre of Montreal, Exeko, and the Montreal Indigenous Community Network.

The report also calls on public health authorities to provide additional emergency workers, qualified cleaning services for non-profit centres and shelters serving the homeless population, a moratorium on ticketing as the pandemic persists and a co-created plan with Indigenous-serving organizations for the safety of all Indigenous people in Montreal.

"The provincial public authorities must take into account how the pandemic affects the various, often marginalized, communities. Universal decision-making disregarding the Indigenous community is harmful," the report states.

"Many of our principal requests have not been met in a timely manner, nor have they taken into consideration the unique circumstances of the Indigenous community in situations of homelessness."

Alexandre Huard, information co-ordinator at the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, said one of the problems is that Indigenous organizations have been passed around from one public authority to another when asking for resources and services.

"The most important point is that we're making sure authorities as well as the general public are very well aware of what is still missing on the ground for Indigenous people to be safe during crisis," said Huard.

They're looking for a holistic approach to meet Indigenous organizations' needs that works with the various jurisdictions and departments — something Huard said cannot be fixed with the additional $75 million announced by the federal government this week for organizations serving Indigenous people living off-reserve.

"It's nothing that money can make up for. It's pre-existing gaps in services and how those services are being offered," said Huard.

"What this crisis has shown us in part is that governments have not been listening."

Requests for on-site testing

Both Nakuset and Huard said there's been repeated requests for on-site testing in shelters, centres, and other community spaces like Cabot Square since March 26 to no avail.

Resilence has been set up in the square for the last two months, offering food, clothing and sleeping bags for up to 600 people a day with a third to half of the clients being Indigenous.

Nakuset is executive director of the Native Women's Shelter in Montreal. (Charles Contant/CBC)

"This population has been ignored," said Nakuset.

"Cabot Square is a petri dish. Even though we try to push them to social distance, they're not doing it. They're sharing and in close contact with one another which means it is an explosion waiting to happen."

The Native Women's Shelter had to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak among staff last week. Nakuset said the shelter had asked public health authorities and the city for weeks for cleaning supplies and cleaning services.

"We were ignored until we had to close," she said.

She said she hopes the status report is taken more seriously.

The office of mayor Valérie Plante told CBC News in a statement that the city has been working with community partners and the health network to meet the needs of the Indigenous homeless population.

"We have implemented a series of measures and we will ensure that we continue to work closely with Indigenous organizations to ensure that it meets the needs of Indigenous people living in homelessness," the statement said.

"The important thing is to focus on the constant communication and collaboration with organizations that provide assistance to this population."

Quebec's Ministry of Health and Social Services said several meetings were held daily between Indigenous, federal and Quebec authorities "to ensure consistency in the actions and meet the needs expressed by the communities."

"Our priority is to ensure that communication channels are maintained so that all have access to timely information to put into action the most recent measurements and adapt them as needed. We welcome the collaboration of Indigenous representative partner organizations," said spokesperson Marie-Louise Harvey in an email.


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.